In his role as Christopher Darden, Sterling K. Brown has been one of the unexpected delights of FX’s captivating hit The People v. O.J. Simpson. Previously, the St. Louis native and Stanford alum, who shaved his head to portray Marcia Clark’s partner in prosecution, was best-known as Roland Burton on Army Wives, Det. Cal Beecher on Person of Interest and Officer Dade on Third Watch.
After The People v. O.J. Simpson, you can expect to see a lot more of the married father of two: In addition to appearing in Tina Fey’s new film, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, he’ll be reprising his starring role in Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2014 off-Broadway Civil War-era play, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), for its Los Angeles run. He’s also awaiting news on a pilot pickup and will be featured in M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller Split, set for release in 2017. Brown dished to The Root about what attracted him to Darden, Darden’s “black” roots and his relationship with Johnnie Cochran.
The Root: What attracted you to the Darden role?
Sterling K. Brown: I always thought that he was such a fascinating character. I remember the grief that he received from black America at that time in terms of being called an Uncle Tom, a sellout, and the death threats that he received, and it was all because he was just trying to do his job. The evidence led him to believe that O.J. Simpson was guilty of a double homicide, and he was caught in this very strange rock and a hard place where he was a black man prosecuting another black man, and the optics were that of, you know, crabs in the barrel—why is he trying to bring this brother down?
This man, O.J. Simpson, at the time, was a representation of the American dream for black America. He had risen from San Francisco, from poverty, and become a Heisman Trophy winner, a rushing leader in the NFL, and crossed over to mainstream success, Naked Gun movies, Hertz rent-a-car advertisements, etc. And then you have Darden trying to prosecute him, trying to put him in jail; people didn’t like that. They were very displeased with the idea that a black man could do that to another black man at the highest level.
So, trying to try to bring some kind of humanity to that journey, to emphasize in this particular instance it wasn’t a Black Lives Matter; it was an All Lives Matter thing, particularly for Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. Those people who had died didn’t have anybody to speak for them, and that’s what Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden tried to do. So to navigate him trying to do his job in the midst of how he was viewed and seen by his community was a very, very fascinating journey.
TR: Initially, you tried reaching out to Darden. Why was that important to you?
SKB: You read Jeffrey Toobin’s book [The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson] and it tells you what Toobin thought of Darden, and at the time, I didn’t have access to Darden’s book, In Contempt. So it was important to me to hear what his take was on the whole thing. What one person says about you can be completely different than what you say about yourself. So to get both of those perspectives was really, really important. I think I was able to get it, in part, from his book, In Contempt, but there is still a part of me that holds out hope that one day we will get a chance to sit down and talk about his experience in terms of my portrayal.
TR: Doesn’t Darden have Bay Area roots?
SKB: Oh yes, he’s from Richmond, Calif. [He and O.J.] are both from around the same parts. I didn’t know Darden was from Richmond … [initially]. When I found out, I was like, “Yo, he’s from, like, the blackest place in Northern California there is, right?” For people to have called him a sellout and an Uncle Tom, I’m like, “Man, they really don’t know about this dude.” So it was interesting just knowing the geography of the land, and knowing that both of those guys are from that place, and yet they wound up on opposite sides of this trial.
TR: Affirmative action is another interesting aspect here. Darden knows that he’s done the work, he’s good at his job, but he’s kind of dogged by how others perceive him.
SKB: Isn’t that always the narrative? It’s one of those things where we can know for ourselves that we’ve done the work, that we’ve put in the time, that we paid our dues, etc., etc., and even though that’s the case, you can always have people looking over your shoulder who are the other and possibly questioning, “Why is he here? Why is she here? Do they belong? Have they done what’s necessary to be here?”
I don’t address the problem anymore. I don’t address the dilemma. I just show up. Me, as an actor, I just show up, and then you can make your own sort of conclusions based upon the work I bring to the table. I can’t allow other people to do that to me.
But here is the thing about Darden: He’s a very passionate guy. He’s the kind of guy that you want to play poker with because he wears his emotions on his sleeve, and I think, if anything, the defense was able to see that and use that to their advantage. He just can’t hide it. When something upset him, he just couldn’t hide it.
TR: Talk about the relationship between Darden and Johnnie Cochran. You are never sure if Johnnie is trying to help him or if he was giving him a shovel to dig his own grave.
SKB: It was one of those things where Darden, himself, speaks on in his book, In Contempt. One of the things he regretted the most is sort of the public playing out of the antagonism between him and Cochran, and if he had a chance to do it over again, he probably would have done things differently. It was deeply upsetting to him, and they started with a relationship that was very much mentor, mentee.
Throughout the course of the trial, he is trying to determine for himself whether or not he is receiving help or he’s getting played. Sometimes it’d be a little bit of both at the same time. Johnnie Cochran was a wonderful, wonderful lawyer, and he believed in winning, and he used the things that were at his beck and call to make that win possible, and part of it was how he was able to manipulate Christopher Darden.
FX airs The People v. O.J. Simpson on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET until March 29.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.